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People accused me of being lazy – until I was diagnosed with narcolepsy

Ashlee Greenlee

If there has been a constant in my life, it would be exhaustion. No matter how much sleep I got the night before, no matter how much coffee I drank, I was always so, so tired. In high school, I struggled to stay awake in my classes and sometimes I lost the battle altogether. It wasn’t uncommon for me to miss an entire geometry class, waking only when the bell rang. My grades suffered, and I actually failed a couple of classes. At parent-teacher conferences, most of my teachers would say that I was smart, but I didn’t apply myself. Not one mentioned that I slept in class.

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I was hopeful that college would be different. Being on my own for the first time was scary, but I looked forward to the change of scenery and thought it might help me stay awake. In reality, my academic performance was worse. I still slept through some of my classes, but this time I did it in my dorm room. On more than one occasion, I managed to sleep until sometimes 4:00 in the afternoon. Needless to say, I didn’t return to school the next year.

I spent my 20s bouncing from one job to the next. Getting to work on time was an issue, since I struggled to get out of bed in the mornings. While at work, I would sometimes doze off in front of the computer, or I would struggle to concentrate on even the simplest tasks. When I worked out of town, I had trouble keeping myself awake while driving, even in the morning after a full night of sleep.

My body and mind felt starved for rest, and the constant lack of energy pulled me into depression that only made it worse. I drank heavily throughout my 20s, gained weight, and sank deeper into depression. Now that I was an adult, I no longer heard that I didn’t apply myself. Instead, I was just flat-out lazy. When I tried to describe how I felt, the usual response was to “Suck it up, everyone gets tired sometimes.”

I finally went to my doctor to get some answers. My first diagnosis was depression, which led to a frustrating month of taking an anti-depressant that did nothing for me. At my next appointment, I was diagnosed with an under active thyroid and given a prescription for Levothyroxine. A few months later and I still didn’t feel better. Feeling pretty hopeless, I gave up on doctors for a while. The end of my 20s brought huge changes to my life, and I didn’t have time to dwell on how tired I was. After my son was born, I let the exhaustion envelope me like a comfortable old blanket. Now that I had a newborn to take care of, people were more understanding when I said I was tired.

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I knew I needed to start taking care of myself to be a good mom. I found an exercise program that I loved, started going to therapy, and improved my diet. Everything should have been perfect, but I was still constantly exhausted.

My OB/GYN referred me to a primary care doctor in her network. This new doctor took her time reading over my medical history and asking me so many questions. Then she looked me in the eye and asked if I had ever been tested for narcolepsy. I’ll admit that I laughed, because it sounded so silly. I wasn’t falling asleep in the middle of conversations!

Still, she wanted me to have a sleep study. I agreed, and spent a night in a sleep study room with wires stuck to my head, face, chest, and legs. A week later, I was driving home from my son’s dentist appointment when I got a phone call about the results.

Image: Ashlee Greenlee

“The test showed definite signs of narcolepsy,” she said.

I didn’t hear much after that. Shocked to finally have an answer, I actually started crying. My sweet boy was asking, “What’s wrong, mama?” from the backseat, and I couldn’t quite come up with a way to describe it. After so many years of wondering what could be wrong with me, and hearing about how lazy or unmotivated I was, I knew it wasn’t my fault.

Now that I am being treated, my life has improved drastically. For the first time in my life, I can workout every day without being completely sapped of energy. Normal daily responsibilities are no longer overwhelming. Working on my laptop isn’t a guaranteed accidental nap anymore. Best of all, I can (almost!) keep up with my energetic boy.

I do still have difficult days, but I’m thankful to finally be feeling better than I ever have.

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